1. Water Access & Equity: Introduction

This submodule provides a general introduction to the problematic of equitable and sustainable access to water. It discusses how water access is framed and problematized at international level and looks at the main political and economic frameworks shaping discourses, debates, and agenda on water access.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify different discourses on the global water crisis
  • Critically reflect on global figures related to access to water versus individual barriers in access to water
  • Reflect on different definitions of access to water
  • Define equity in relation to water access

Key Concepts

Water crisis, access to water

1. The global water crisis

According to the UNDP (2016),

“Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people around the world, an alarming figure that is projected to increase with the rise of global temperatures as a consequence of climate change. Although 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved water sanitation since 1990, dwindling supplies of safe drinking water is a major problem impacting every continent.”

In this submodule we will disentangle some of the ideas contained in the paragraph. Let’s start with the concept of water scarcity. There seems to be general agreement to the fact that the world is facing a major water problem: the so called global water crisis. To understand what this global water crisis is about, watch the following video clips.

The first clip produced by the National Academy of Engineering in 2015 showcases Farouk El-Baz (member, NAE Committee on engineerings grand challenges) providing an overview of the situation of fresh water availability at global level.

The second clip, a PowerPoint presentation developed by FAO Water in 2009 gives some quick facts on water scarcity, watch the presentation until minute 2:45

Reflect a few moments on these two short video clips:

  • In what terms is the water problem presented?
  • What are the main causes of water scarcity according to each of the clips?

Water scarcity problems haven often been defined in terms of physical challenges (i.e. availability of resources), economical challenges (i.e. financing), or technological challenges (i.e. lack of infrastructures or technologies). Yet, there are other dimensions to take into account.

The following interview with Professor Erik Swyngendow (University of Manchester) was produced by Red WATERLAT in 2011 during the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Network (you can stop at minute 05:27).

To get more insights on the political dimensions of the global water crisis, please read the Santa Cruz declaration.

According to the authors, the global water crisis:

“is fundamentally one of injustice and inequality.” (Pg 1)

What does this mean to you?

The UNDP Report published in 2006: Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the global water crisis also discusses the global water crises in similar terms. Authors go beyond the myth of water scarcity to analyze the role of poverty, power, and inequalities. According to the report,

“There is more than enough water in the world for domestic purposes, for agriculture and for industry. The problem is that some people notably the poor are systematically excluded from access by their poverty, by their limited legal rights or by public policies that limit access to the infrastructures that  provide water for life and for livelihoods” (Pg 3)

Download the UNDP report and read the Foreword (pages V and VI).

2. Understanding the Global figures

Another idea contained in the UNDP quote at the beginning of this submodule is that:

“2.1 billion people have gained access to improved water sanitation since 1990”

In the next two sections we will analyze the meaning of such global water figures. First, let’s look at how  access is defined. Read the definitions used in the context of the MDGs.

Access is defined here in terms of water sources and sanitation facilities (i.e. infrastructures). Can you think of potential situations in which access to water or sanitation infrastructure does not automatically mean access to water or to sanitation?

Can you think of some missing dimensions in these definitions of water and sanitation access? What do you think the limitations of these definitions are?
You will find some hints in the following clip. The video was produced by Winrock International in 2012 and reflects about the multiple water needs of poor households.

More detailed information on the global situation on water and sanitation access was presented in the WHO/JMP report: Progress on sanitation and drinking water report – 2015 update and MDG assessment. Read the foreword to the report. What is the current status of water and sanitation access at global level?

The following images extracted from pages 4 and 5 of the WHO/JMP report show the global picture of water and sanitation achievements by country:

progress-2015 progress-sanitation-2015

Can you see differences in progress archived in the different regions and countries? Which regions or countries are showing more/less progress?

Read the complete pages 4 and 5 of the WHO/JMP 2015 update to get more information progress of the MDG – 7.

Now watch this interview with Tom Slaymaker (Deputy Head of Policy, Water Aid, JMP water working group lead – monitoring post 2015) produced by IRC WASH in 2012. The interview briefly summarizes some of the strengths and limitations of the MDG target, (you can stop at minute 2:26).

To get more insight on this topic, read the section Goals, targets and their barriers of the IIED (2013) briefing “Making the right to water a reality: tackling barriers to access and equity”.

3. Global disparities and everyday inequalities

“In previous reports, the JMP has drawn attention to inequalities in access to drinking water and sanitation between rural and urban areas, rich and poor, and other groups and the general population. The MDG target called for countries to halve the proportion of the population without access, but it is important to ask who has benefited from progress made during the MDG era, and who has been left behind.”(WHO/JMP, 2015 pg 18)

The JMP acknowledges that big numbers mask disparities, have a look at the WHO/JMP 2011 report from pages 17 to 31 and identify some of these disparities.

Regional disparities, rural- urban disparities, rich-poor disparities, gender disparities and also other elements as time used for collection or  quality of the water accessed are some of the elements not reflected by the indicator.
In addition to this disparities at global level, big numbers on access to water and sanitation do not reflect the everyday barriers that people might face accessing water and sanitation.

The following clip was produced by STEPS Centre during the 2011 Water and Sanitation Symposium. In the clip  Louisa Gosling, (Water Aid) discusses different type of barriers people face to access WASH at everyday level.

Louisa mentions Environmental, Attitudinal and Institutional barriers for accessing water and sanitation services at everyday level. What do you think those are? Think about examples for each type of barrier.

Particular members of the same community are more likely to face these barriers and there are different axes of social inequality to take into account in WaSH.

The SDGs are trying to incorporate these issues in the set of goals established in 2015. Look at this WHO/JMP brochure on post-2015 and the new definition of the targets for water and sanitation.

According to JMP:

The new SDGs “cannot be achieved without a much sharper focus on inequalities in access between groups – such as rich and poor, rural and urban, or disadvantaged groups versus the general population. Disaggregated and better WASH data would identify inequalities where they occur to allow targeted intervention”

4. Water equity and social justice

The new SDGs focus on a “new” important dimension of water access: Equitability WHO/JMP brochure on post 2015 defines Equitability as the:

“progressive reduction and elimination of inequalities between population subgroups”

Definitions of equity by different actors in the water sector refer to ideas of fair, fairness or justice

According to WaterAid, for example:

The Santa Cruz declaration uses the following definition,

“Water justice can be conceived as equitable or comparable access for particular water uses and deliberated fairness between uses”

And ODI researchers Calow and Mason (2014, page 2) define water equity as,

“fair shares in access and entitlements to water, and benefits from water use”

An important discussion that will come back in the coming years as the SDGs are being worked out is what do we mean with equitable and what type of inequalities are going to be targeted. Are we talking about quantity and quality of water available for each individual or equity has a more radical meaning?

“In other words, how inequity or inequality is assessed in normative terms—and addressed in practical terms—may depend less upon how we conceive inequity and more upon how we define equity in theory and practice, or in what spaces or dimensions we seek to achieve equality (Sen 1992). Equity in water provision at the individual and household level of analysis is frequently evaluated through volume and cleanliness of water delivered (e.g. do households or businesses get equal quantities of clean water?) We suggest that the issues that constitute equity in access to, and provision of water, are wider than the quantity and quality of water. They may include: labor time collecting water, health outcomes from inadequate water and sanitation, work and other opportunities foregone because of water collection, certainty of supply, and the valuation of domestic work, income earning and business opportunities made possible by water supply. A useful metric in evaluating equity of access to water is through freedoms and capabilities; how does access to water facilitate the range of capabilities (e.g. washing, laundry, agriculture, small-business and the like) characteristic of any given society?”

5. Case Studies

To conclude watch the following documentary produced by Caterina de Almeida Brito in 2013. The documentary tells the story of the struggle for water in the Kosovo Village in the Mathare informal settlement of Nairobi.

Key Readings

Key Readings

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  • Is the political dimension of the global water crisis new to you?
  • What do you think are the implications of the shift in focus on availability/financing/technologies to power and inequalities?
  • What is Swyngendow's main argument?
  • How is his argument in relation to the global water crisis different to the ones presented in the other two clips?
  • What do you think about these definitions?
  • What are the dimension of access that they cover?

Further Readings

Further Readings

  • Matthew Goff & Ben Crow (2014) What is water equity? The unfortunate consequences of a global focus on ‘drinking water’, Water International, 39:2, 159-171
  • Flora Lu, Constanza Ocampo-Raeder & Ben Crow (2014) Equitable water governance: future directions in the understanding and analysis of water inequities in the global South, Water International, 39:2, 129-142,
  • (2014) Santa Cruz Declaration on the Global Water Crisis, Water International, 39:2, 246-261,
  • Truelove, Y. (2011). (Re-) Conceptualizing water inequality in Delhi, India through a feminist political ecology framework. Geoforum, 42(2), 143-152.
  • Romano et al (2013), Equitable Water Governance across Scales and Disciplines: Conceptualizations, Previous Research, and Future Directions. You can access it through Professor Sarah Romano website or here

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules

Next submodule: The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

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